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Q. I am the VP of human resources for a 30-year-old, $20 million consumer product company. I’ve received requests from some of our employees about incorporating sustainability programs. I’m all for it, but the president-founder is old school, does not see the value and is opposed to making any changes.

A. I’ve done some research on incorporating sustainability programs over the past six months – studying sustainability programs in the workplace, attending workshops and interviewing corporate leaders. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Discussions around sustainability can foster confusion thanks to terms like global warming, carbon footprint, green products and greenhouse gas emissions.

Business leaders must be educated about how sustainability initiatives are a long-term investment and will save the company money, build customer loyalty and build employee retention over a period of time.

Sustainability programs must be evaluated and structured in a way that benefits the company, employees, customers and business partners. Successful programs are championed by a leader who takes responsibility for maintaining sustainability as on an ongoing discussion throughout the organization and community.

Many companies are beginning to embrace sustainability as an opportunity to gain competitive advantage. Some examples of organizations that have instituted these types of sustainability initiatives are:

-- Wal-Mart, whose “Sustainability 360” program has reduced annual shipping container use by 500 units, preventing the consumption of 1,000 barrels of oil and 3,800 trees while netting the retail giant $2.4 million in cost savings annually

-- Nestle Waters, the maker of Deer Park, Arrowhead and Poland Spring water brands, which has pruned the mass of its plastic bottles by 15 percent, reducing the amount of waste the products ultimately contribute to landfills while also reducing its manufacturing and shipping costs

-- Dial Corp., whose development of a concentrated liquid laundry detergent lowers the amount of water needed during the product’s production and reduces packaging material by 40 percent – lessening its landfill impact while significantly lowering the company’s transportation, distribution and storage costs

These and other early adopters gained benefits from their sustainability initiatives by developing organizational structures and talent management approaches designed to minimize the risks and maximize the business opportunities related to sustainability. Rather than treating sustainability as a risk and cost to be managed, early-inning sustainability leaders are integrating sustainability initiatives deep into their processes and cultures and collaborating with a broad range of partners including government and non-government organizations on sustainability initiatives.

There are three stages of sustainability initiatives. “Early,” treated solely as a risk or as a response to regulations that require compliance. “Intermediate,” treated as both a risk and an opportunity, with the program extended into multiple corporate functions. “Advanced," expanded beyond the organization to an entire “sustainability supply chain.” Opportunities include talent management benefits and use as a competitor differentiator.

Comparing yourself to Wal-Mart or Dial Corp. is not realistic. The obvious wins are reducing your costs by making small changes from turning off lights and electronic equipment when not in use, to alternative packaging, to using one vendor versus multiple vendors for supplies, and by developing a competitive advantage building customer loyalty and employee retention.

“Think globally, act locally” urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities. Long before federal and state agencies began enforcing environmental laws, individuals were coming together to protect habitats and the organisms that depend on them. These efforts are referred to as grassroots efforts. They occur on a local level and are primarily run by volunteers (Wikipedia definition). One thing is certain, you must get buy-in from the president-CEO.  I recommend educating yourself about how to incorporate sustainability programs into your company and take advantage of the rich resources available at the local level.

Learn from others by reading about corporate sustainability success stories, take some classes and workshops or hire a consultant who partners with organizations to implement sustainability programs.

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Jennifer Laxton is a senior partner and consultant with Executive Search Associates in Santa Rosa, www.esa.com. ESA is an executive search and consulting company. You can reach her at 707-217-4535 or jklaxton@esa.com. If you have questions with regards to your situation, send an e-mail to askjen@esa.com.